Bil Browning

CVS: Condoms Vs Shoplifters

Filed By Bil Browning | June 26, 2009 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: condoms, health care reform, HIV infection, HIV/AIDS, locking up condoms, pharmacy, STDs

A coalition of labor unions is criticizing CVS pharmacies for locking up condoms in some of its stores. CVS_condoms.jpgThe group, Change to Win, says that putting the rubbers behind glass means that young people will be less likely to ask for them, while CVS counters that the locked case means less people will steal the condoms. They also charge that CVS locks up condoms more often in communities of color.

"We do know from studies that free access to condoms cuts down on sexually transmitted infections," said Neerav Desai, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "For someone that has any hesitation about use, this could be another reason for them not to use condoms."

CVS says that the practice is done solely to deter shoplifting and that stores where the condoms are locked up also have some available in the open.

With my background in retail and loss prevention in stores in poor neighborhoods, my knee-jerk reaction is, "CVS isn't out to give away condoms or make it easy to shoplift from their stores. It's a business. Big deal. Free condoms are for the health clinics and bars to distribute." I decided to do a small experiment to see how local CVS pharmacies handled the problem since I live in a neighborhood with large amounts of people of color. Here's what I found:

Within 10 blocks of my house, there are two CVS's and a Kroger with a pharmacy. I went to all three to check out the condom status. I talked to employees in all three locations to check out how their store policies worked and how the policy seemed to impact condom sales and shoplifting.

CVS Location #1

The condoms weren't locked up and were readily available on the shelves.

I spoke with the pharmacist who told me she assumed that they would be put under lock and key soon because they were one of the highest theft items in the store. The rubbers are located within eyesight of the pharmacy counter, but that section isn't open 24 hours. According to her, young people of color are the usual shoplifters of condoms, but are also the group most likely to be caught attempting to shoplift other items too.

CVS Location #2

The condoms were locked behind a case on the shelves. Pregnancy tests, lubricants, and other sexual health items were also behind glass.

I went to the pharmacy and said, "I'd like to buy some condoms." The pharmacist, an older gentleman, was very professional and led me to the shelf, unlocked the case and said, "Grab the ones you want." I picked out the cheapest box there (Lifestyles X2 - "Lubricated Inside + Out To Intensify Sensitivity and Sensation!) and paid for it while chatting up the pharmacist.

When I asked why the condoms were locked up, he told me it was a recent step by the store to prevent shoplifting. As with the other CVS, he said condoms were one of the most commonly stolen items before being put behind a case. Since they'd been locked up, the problem had been solved. He suggested that perhaps the thieves were going to the nearby Kroger to loot the condom selection. Again, young people were the usual suspects, but not just young people of color. Instead, he thought it was about a 50/50 mix of Caucasian vs Latino/black youths.

When I asked how many people were buying condoms now, his answer shocked me. He told me I was the first person to ask to buy condoms since they went under lock and key. He was very concerned about young people being afraid to ask for condoms and other sexual health items. After I pointed out how the company had been losing money on the shoplifted items, he agreed that it was a problem but didn't think the current store policy was the best solution. He didn't have one of his own, however.

Kroger Pharmacy

The Kroger we shop at is in the same shopping center as the second CVS location. The condoms are kept behind glass under the pharmacy counter (not behind the counter - the case faces out to the public at floor level). I spoke with a pharmacy tech that I know from shopping at the store and he was particularly candid.

He told me that while the condoms and lube were kept behind glass, they left the cases unlocked during pharmacy hours. He recognized that they were commonly stolen and admitted that they had watched young people kneel down to the case and pocket condoms without stopping them. He acknowledged that rubbers were a high theft item, but said the store's general attitude in this situation was that it was better to keep the shelf lightly stocked and lose some packages than to force young people to ask for the items directly.

What's the Solution?

Obviously this isn't strictly a CVS issue and I think Change to Win is a little misguided in shaming CVS without offering a workable solution to an industry-wide problem. The chain is in business to make money off health-related items. If its sole concern was preventing diseases and curing ailments, they'd give away all of their medical supplies and medications. It's not their job to make sure youths can shoplift their inventory with impunity or to ensure that sexually active young people are mature enough to ask for contraceptives without embarrassment.

On the other hand, there is an undeniable issue surrounding getting young people to protect themselves and their partners during sex. Unplanned pregnancies and STDs are a common issue in our local community - especially in poorer (not necessarily communities of color) neighborhoods. With less education and less available spending money, condoms are often the last thing on the list for purchase. Still, there are at least three places within a mile of my house that give away free condoms; they can be found for free easily.

So what's the solution? It seems that these two conundrums are opposite, but I firmly believe that CVS employees are concerned about access to condoms just as HIV/AIDS activists don't want CVS to suffer financial loss. While the quoted article says CVS stores also keep some rubbers on the shelves without locking them up (arguably saying it's okay to shoplift those condoms), I didn't see any outside of the case in the second CVS location.

Should CVS give away condoms as well as sell them? Would anyone buy them if you can get them for free at the same location? Or should the store strictly concern itself with what concerns its shareholders - the bottom line? I'd love to see your thoughts on the issue.


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As a former CVS manager, I can tell you that for the most part it's not the store staff making the decision to lock up product. When a store has significant issues with theft, the company sends in a loss prevention specialist to assess the problem.

The standard CVS loss prevention plan in just about all cases (in my experience) can be boiled down to this:

If a store is losing profit on a particular item or type of merchandise due to shoplifting, regardless of what it is, it will either be locked up or made inaccessible to customers in some other way such as being put behind a counter.

The loss prevention people don't care if teens have access to condoms, or to anything else for that matter. They care solely about protecting and maximizing CVS's profit margin.

LP will order that customer access to any type of item that the store is having shoplifting issues with be restricted, and the higher-ups will generally back them up. Those of us at the store management level never actually made those decisions, our job was to implement those directives from corporate based on LP's report.

Frankly, as a manager, a big part of my job was to prevent theft, and if in accomplishing that we had to make it a little more difficult for teens to buy condoms, I was just fine with that. As a CVS manager, protecting my store from shoplifters and ensuring its profit margin (and my own continued employment) was a far higher priority for me than making sure Bobby could schtup Judy on prom night.

I have a proposal for Change to Win: Get CVS and other pharmacies to commit to programs that provide FREE condoms for teens, the kind that already exist in Bil's neighbourhood. Get them to commit to non-judgmental sex education classes at youth centres. And, actually, while they're at it - get them to commit to enlightened, comprehensive, LGBTQ-inclusive (not medieval abstinence-only bunk), sex education classes in schools. This could be a way to get such chains to actually integrate into communities and stop the rapid depletion of sensible sex education programs across the country.

I haven't worked out the details, but those are my two cents.

Of course, this doesn't get at the issue of why lower-income teens feel they have to steal rather than buy condoms in the first place - have you seen the prices on those things??

Stupid question:

Would it make a difference if they somehow switched to, like, condom vending machines of some kind? That might cut down on shoplifting while not scaring people away.

mcc, that's not realistic. Vending machines are damned expensive unless you lease them or lease the space to an outside contractor. It's far less expensive for CVS to simply install a lockable display or to move it behind the front registers or into the pharmacy.

In case you don't know, CVS has over 800 stores operating right now. When you factor that in, you realize that attempting to put in vending machines, even just in stores with shoplifting problems, just isn't profitable for CVS. Any money the company might save through preventing theft would be offset by the expense of the machines themselves.

A nice idea, but just not realistic, especially in this economy.

It seems to me the answer is obvious: condom vending machines. They already exist in clubs and bars (at least, they do in the UK) so why not use a larger version in shops?

This is also for mcc above:

The vending machines in bars are usually found in the bathrooms to mitigate some of the embarrassment common in buying the rubbers. Do you think that would be a problem for a much larger (I'm thinking pop vending machine size to accommodate the large number of boxes/types of condoms) vending machine? Would placement of the machine matter? And who would pay to design, build, install and maintain the machines? If CVS, would that end up costing them more than the cost shoplifters cause? (Would it end up costing them more money this way?)

I'm not saying vending machines are a bad idea, I'm just curious on how you'd implement it.

Also, what about the cost? Those rubbers still wouldn't be free - like ones given away or shoplifted.

I have forwarded this article to the Damien Center.

For those unaware: The Damien Center is one of the three health centers within a mile of my house that distributes free condoms; they focus on HIV/AIDS care and coordination. They are an outstanding organization.

A standard candy vending machines with 3 packs of condoms, single use lubes and the like or even full size boxes would be both cheap and efficient to both the customer and the retailer.

The young customers don’t have a lot of money and only need one or two condoms…
The retailer gets needed security for the goods and can still sell them without staff interruptions to other needed work.

Many commercial vending machines would work with this paradigm and everyone could accept it. You could put the machine in an out of the way location so no one is embarrassed to ask for something. Ok, maybe you lose a buck or two. You ask for a refund.

It’s a no brainer. You could also stock free condoms if you wished too.

Problem solved.

I dunno, the vending machine idea could work. They wouldn't have to be huge, expensive vending machines like coke machines, but smaller ones that only take exact change (I'd imagine it'd be easier to ask for change instead of condoms). They're not just in bars - I've seen them in the street (in france and germany) and I'd imagine they wouldn't be all over if someone wasn't at least breaking even on them.

Because the problem here seems to be bigger than shop-lifting. I'm thinking: why would condoms be lifted more than everything else? They're not that expensive. Why not keep everything under lock and key? It seems like the reason they're being stolen isn't so much poverty (at least directly), but more embarrassment and a lack of other options (how many kids who would shoplift condoms even know the damien center exists?).

Even from a business standpoint, putting the condoms behind glass doesn't make sense. They might not want to hand them out for free, but it doesn't make sense for them to hold them without selling them either. That's wasted real estate.

But I don't think they should be there just to make money. They benefit from the community - police and fire departments protect them, the residents patronize their stores, the land they use could have been turned into something else for the community, the money they take and send back to corporate (to have houses up in Carmel), the employees who work there probably don't live too far away - and that should mean that they have a responsibility to the neighborhood. Maybe they don't see it that way, of course they don't see it that way, but still, they can't operate in a vacuum.

The problem with just saying that it's someone else's responsibility to give free condoms is that these people who are stealing obviously don't know about the free condoms or they wouldn't be stealing them so much (either that or the free ones are terrible, I don't know). The condoms should be where the people are, and they seem to be at CVS more than at the Damien Center.

Maybe they could provide those free condoms that the nonprofits provide in their stores? Because, honestly, of all the things young people could be stealing, condoms are among the best. And i'm not really going to cry all that much when the money lost on condom sales would probably have ended up going to a new mercedes for an exec.

Alex, CVS is a retail business. Profit margin reigns supreme and always will. They're going to do whatever they deem necessary to protect their profit because that's far more important to the company than customer service or being a positive force in the community.

When we'd have community activists come to our store asking to support an event or put up flyers for something we were under direct orders from corporate not to participate in any way or to allow any non-CVS literature to be handed out in or near our store.

Frankly, if you think CVS is going to do anything that cuts into their profit for purely altruistic reasons, I think you're kidding yourself.

Not at all for purely altruistic reasons! I was hoping they'd be legally forced to do it!

What about posting stickers or advertisements for nearby organizations that give away free condoms on the cabinet with the condoms? That way, if someone is too embarrassed to ask for a store employee to unlock the cabinet and buy condoms, they can find somewhere that will give them condoms for free.

As for the depletion in profits this might create, CVS or the various condom companies could offer to donate to those particular organizations, or give customers who buy condoms in the store more points on their extra care card to put toward more condoms from CVS.

Another possibility is for one or two employees (hopefully one or two employees per shift) who are comfortable with getting/talking about condoms from the cabinet to voluntarily wear buttons that say something along the line of "Need condoms? Ask me for help - just don't give me the details." I realize this could be a problem, depending on the employee's age versus the customer's age, but a teenager asking another teenager about condoms isn't as nearly embarrassing as asking an adult, so it may help lessen the embarrassment teens feel in buying condoms.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | June 26, 2009 10:38 PM

A plentiful, varied supply free condoms, dental dams, and biocides plus HIV prevention literature and electronic replay materials should be freely available at all retail outlets, especially at christer and other religious stores. They should be easily accessed for all ages.

The costs can be met by a special tax on the profits of retail businesses which otherwise would be wasted on the exorbitant lives of seedy, unproductive stock owners and managers.

Great post, Bil! Think your neighborhood knows it's susceptible to mini-investigations that go national via Bilerico? :)

Just to put the vending machine/too expensive/ain't that for bars commentary into perspective -- most CVS stores I got to these days have a vending maching-like device to hold razor blades. The small packs are held behind thick plastic. You push in a button, then it pops out (albeit a little slowly) the cartridges you desire. Only problem is it's a bit loud (which perhaps alerts associates that someone's near the razor blades...).

Anyway, I think expanding on this vending machine idea is a good start. I'm always appalled when I see sexual health items under lock and key.

We had one of those razor blade displays in my store, Dustin. If you examine it closely, you'll see that it's lockable. In my store, it was kept locked at all times. I and the other managers were the only ones with a key. Also, you're right, that ratchet thing is as loud as it is to alert store employees when a customer takes a package of blades out of an unlocked display.

Even with that we were being ripped off for razor blades left and right so our store manager ordered the display to be locked at all times and product was only to be removed from the display by a manager or head cashier, brought directly to checkout, and not given to the customer until they had paid.

It's the same with condoms. No Store Manager is going to take a hit on their store's annual profits (upon which their yearly bonus is based) if they can do something to prevent it. When push comes to shove, they'd much rather lose customers than lose product.

John Shields John Shields | June 27, 2009 12:21 AM

I think everyone is missing the point of this post, coming as it is (pun intended) on the day before National HIV Testing Day.

The author asks a good question, and there are no solid answers. I remember stealing condoms when I was a kid, buying them as an adult, stealing my first gay magazine before I had the balls to buy one.

This is not simply a CVS issue, an issue for the free clinics and organizations that would love to do nothing more than give away condoms, nor is it an issue that can be figured out by "leaders." And that vending machine idea - only works if you're over 18/21 and can get into a bar or if you live in the middle of nowhere. Starbucks doesn't have condoms in their bathrooms. And - no - I don't go to Starbucks, but you get my point.

Kids will be kids, and this is a serious issue regarding some serious thinking. There is no one magic cure for this. It needs to be done locally - using all available resources.

Read Dan O'Neill's post on the subject, and it's not just about condoms:

http://dc.bilerico.com/2009/06/national_hiv_testing_day.php